Heritage Gem

Singapore Conference Hall: A national monument that's worthy of hall of fame status

The concourse (left), the VIP lounge with world clock panel (below left) and a wall with Malay motifs (below right) in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations ove
Architect Lim Chong Keat (far left), who designed the Singapore Conference Hall, showing then Law and Health Minister K. M. Byrne a model of the project in 1962.ST FILE PHOTO
The concourse (left), the VIP lounge with world clock panel (below left) and a wall with Malay motifs (below right) in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations ove
Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the National Day Rally at the Singapore Conference Hall on Aug 19, 1984. ST FILE PHOTO
The concourse (left), the VIP lounge with world clock panel (below left) and a wall with Malay motifs (below right) in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations ove
The concourse the VIP lounge with world clock panel and a wall with Malay motifs (above) in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations over the years. ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
The concourse (left), the VIP lounge with world clock panel (below left) and a wall with Malay motifs (below right) in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations ove
The concourse the VIP lounge with world clock panel (above) and a wall with Malay motifs in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations over the years. ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
The concourse (left), the VIP lounge with world clock panel (below left) and a wall with Malay motifs (below right) in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations ove
The concourse (above), the VIP lounge with world clock panel and a wall with Malay motifs in the Singapore Conference Hall. The mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls have remained throughout renovations over the years. ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM

From places of worship and educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the latest in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

To a generation of Singaporeans, the Singapore Conference Hall (SCH) evokes a wave of nostalgia.

In its halcyon days, it represented the hospitable face of the nation, as the venue of choice to host foreign dignitaries. Unionists remember it as their headquarters. Some remember it for the Chinese concerts.

Mr Wang Khong Hai remembers it for the ceremony. The son of a bus driver excelled at school and would win a scholarship from the National Transport Workers' Union every year.

The presentation ceremony was often held at SCH, so it's little wonder Mr Wang, 45, now an IT project manager, remembers it fondly.

In the wood-panelled auditorium, the Temasek Primary School pupil would wait with other recipients for his turn to go on stage.

"The award was between $100 and $200 - a big amount for a child back then," he said.

The conference hall, officially opened by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1965, was the first post-colonial building gazetted as a National Monument, in 2010.

Formerly known as the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House, it was constructed to house the headquarters of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), to fulfil an election promise and to host exhibitions and conferences.

  • THROUGH THE YEARS

  • 1965 

    The Singapore Conference Hall is officially opened by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

  • 2000 

    The National Trades Union Congress moves out.

  • 2001 

    Hall is reopened after extensive renovations to house the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

  • 2010 

    The Singapore Conference Hall is the first post-colonial building gazetted as a National Monument.

  • 2018

    The conference hall, now undergoing renovations, will reopen to the public.

Designed by the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership, it incorporated elements that took into consideration Singapore's tropical climate.

These included a butterfly- shaped roof that drains rainwater and sun-breakers using local hardwood to shield the interior from the harsh rays.

The hall also held local touches, such as the mosaic tiles with Malay patterns that covered the walls. They remained throughout renovations over the years.

As headquarters for the NTUC, the SCH served as the location for many union events.

Now a senior associate, 47- year-old Salwani Mahadi started as a clerical officer working in the headquarters' central registry in December 1989.

She remembers a brief encounter with the late President Ong Teng Cheong, who was secretary-general till 1993, when he signed out for a file from the registry.

She also remembers being at the biennial Ordinary Delegates' Conference in 1992, to elect union leaders. Though too new to be involved in the event, she made sure to peep out from backstage to gaze at the union luminaries onstage.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the National Courtesy (the predecessor of the Singapore Kindness Movement) and Speak Mandarin campaigns from the Singapore Conference Hall.

It was also here that Mr Lee delivered several National Day rallies and May Day speeches.

The hall was also used as a venue for the first Presidential Election held in 1993.

From concerts and award presentations to union conferences, SCH is inextricably connected to the country's history.

Foreign dignitaries were also hosted at the SCH, which had a kitchen and a hall for receptions. Among these was the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was hosted here in 1968.

Another fixture at the SCH was the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF), an annual event organised by the Education Ministry to celebrate the achievements of young people in co-curricular activities.

Miss Guo Ziyue was a Secondary 2 student when she played there with Chung Cheng High Yishun's Chinese orchestra.

Miss Guo, now a 21-year-old undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, has fond memories of moving percussion instruments around backstage with her friends.

"It was also where we chit-chatted, did last-minute rehearsals and calmed ourselves down before performances," she said.

When the orchestra learnt it had received the top award in the 2011 SYF, everyone erupted in cheers.

"It was nerve-racking. Upon hearing that we had our desired gold with honours award , we screamed with happiness and even cried. We started hugging each other and it felt wonderful," she said.

The award structure for the SYF was revamped in 2012 and the festival is held at other venues too now.

"I hope that the hall can continue to create beautiful memories for the next generation of performers," said Ms Guo.

After the NTUC moved out in 2000, SCH underwent extensive renovations, reopening the next year to house the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

The hall is under renovations, and will reopen to the public by early 2018.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'A national monument that's worthy of hall of fame status'. Print Edition | Subscribe